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Clicker Training for Dogs 101

Clear communication for unprecedented training results!

Many of you have heard of clicker training. You may have even purchased one, but you don't know how to use it effectively or at all. 

In this article by Jari Castle (a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) you will learn:

✔️ How to use the clicker

✔️ Why it is the go-to method for training animals of any species and

✔️ The common mistakes people make that undermines their success

The clicker is used to train new behaviour, so there needs to be a shift in thinking about what is motivating your dog’s behaviour

If we think that our dogs are behaving badly on purpose, we are predisposed to think they need to be corrected. Conversely, if we think our dogs are struggling in a situation and don’t have the experience or appropriate skills to behave how we want, we are more inclined to help and support them. 

For example, if a dog jumps all over you when you get home, even though you’d told them off every day for six months, it is easy to think that they know they should not be jumping. 

But, did you ever teach them explicitly how they *should* greet you? Or was it assumed that they would intrinsically know? 

Your dog wants to be in your good books and finds it at least a little stressful each time you scold them. 

Here’s a secret though: you can’t teach a dog not to do something. 

The dog is always doing a behaviour, and we decide if that behaviour is acceptable or not. If the behaviour is not okay, think “what do I want the dog to do instead?” And then train them to do that. Enter: Clicker training!

How clicker training works

A clicker is a small device that makes a unique mechanical click sound when the button is pressed. The device is not the crucial tool though. 

The science and magic of clicker training is the sound, and what it means to the dog. The click sound “marks” the behaviour you want to reinforce, so clicker training is also known as marker training.

Let’s get technical for a second: if a dog does a behaviour and gets something they want, the behaviour has been reinforced. This means that the behaviour is more likely to occur again as it benefited the dog last time. 

Reinforcers (things the dog wants) can be categorised into primary and secondary reinforcers. 

  • Primary reinforcers are biologically what the dog innately likes: food, water, shelter and safety are classic examples of this. We do not need to teach the dog to like these things. Specific breeds will have other primary reinforcers - chasing is innately enjoyable for a Whippet and herding is how a Kelpie would choose to spend their day. 
  • Secondary reinforcers are things the dog likes, but because we have introduced them to the dog in a way that is enjoyable for them. 

Getting the leash out means nothing to a puppy, but through repetition your pup learns that the leash means it is time to explore outside, and so we see the excited response when the leash come out. 

Exploring outside is the primary reinforcer, and the leash has been associated with that so is a secondary reinforcer.

In clicker training the click sound is always followed by a small piece of delicious food. 

Initially the sound means nothing to the dog, but through repetition the dog learns that when they hear the click, a piece of food is coming. [1]

The brain releases dopamine, among other hormones, when dogs eat. If the clicker is consistently followed by food, the dog will get this dopamine release when they hear the click, thereby reinforcing whatever behaviour “caused” the click. 

Behaviour that gets reinforced gets repeated!

Pros & Cons of Using a Clicker and Alternative Markers

The clicker is an ideal tool because the sound it makes is unique, always sounds the same and can be used by multiple people. Some dogs can be scared of the sound though, in which case a quieter clicker may be needed, or holding the clicker in your pocket to muffle the sound. 

You can decide to not use the clicker at all and instead use a verbal marker, which is handy for those times you do not have your clicker with you. 

The word “Yes” is the best option. 

Other words and praise such as “good/good dog” are said too frequently and not consistently paired with the food reward. “Yes” is a word that will be said deliberately and used conscientiously. Most trainers will teach a dog to respond to a clicker and a verbal marker so that both options are available.

Getting started

To get started clicker training, all you need is the clicker, your dog, and a handful of small treats (about the size of your little fingernail is ideal). When your dog is looking at you, click and then give them one treat. [2]

You can feed it to their mouth or drop it on the floor for them to quickly find. As soon as the treat is eaten, repeat with four more treats in quick succession.

Next, ask your dog to sit. As soon as their butt touches the ground, click and treat. You can toss the treat so they get up, ready to sit again on cue. After doing sit three times, move to another behaviour they know well such as lay down or shake.

Pro-tip: keep the treats in a treat bag or on the bench near you rather than in your hand. This will reduce the time your dog spends obsessing over the treats and your hands. 

It is very important to click and then reach for the treat.

What can you teach with a clicker?

Clicker training can be used to train your dog any new skill. 

Jari-Ann Castle with her Whippet
Credit: Pawesome Photography

This can range from tricks to safety skills, cooperative care for smoother vet and grooming visits, or addressing behaviour issues such as reactivity and aggression

Remember how we need to fundamentally change how we think about behaviour problems? The key to training your dog is to stop thinking about stopping their bad behaviour and start considering what behaviour would be the best alternative. 

We can then train that new skill!

 There are two ways to do this: capturing and shaping. 

✔️ Capturing is when we mark the dog for doing the behaviour we want, even if it is only for a second. 

✔️ Shaping is when we mark the dog for doing something that can be built upon to the better behaviour we want. 

For example, if we are teaching a dog to go to their bed, we could capture the behaviour by clicking when the dog walking onto their bed of their own accord. We could shape the behaviour by clicking when the dog took a step towards the bed, then another, until the dog is on the bed. 

Shaping also works well when dogs are highly aroused, for example when visitors arrive. Maybe they are too excited to sit when you tell them to, but you can click when they have four paws on the ground, and then cue the sit when they are able to stand calmly.

For a dog who is aggressive to other dogs on walks, the perfect time to click is when your dog perceives the other dog, as in that moment they are standing still and looking - a perfectly acceptable behaviour that you can reinforce so the behaviour is more likely to happen again. This is another example of capturing. 

The other great benefit of clicker training is that the dog is forming positive associations with the sights and sounds in the area at the same time as well as learning better behaviour.

Improving your skills

Any training strategy is only effective and efficient if it is done well. Clicker training is a new skill for you as well, so practice before you subject your dog to it! 

To practice your clicker mechanics, put on a soccer video and click whenever a player kicks the ball. There are specific videos for practicing your clicker mechanics as well, such as this one

It’s also fun to connect with other owners and trainers who also want to improve their skills as you can practice with each other. 

Games such as flipping cards and clicking for your designated suit or colour, or clicking for odd and even dice rolls are quick and simple games to improve your observation skills and quick clicker timing.

For the clicker nerds out there, you can also attend workshops such as the Clicker Games Tournament being held at the Pet Professional Guild Australia Conference (14-16 June 2024)

You will compete and have fun with other clicker trainers to win prizes and hone your clicker skills. It’s a great chance to practice in a fun environment and meet other animal trainers. I hope to see you there!

Written by Jari Castle, Jari Castle Dog Training, March 2024 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

Additional Resources


Classical (Pavlovian) Conditioning - Credit Lili Chin 


What is Click Training? Credit Karen Pryor Academy

About our writer

Jari Castle is a Certified Training Partner with the Karen Pryor Academy and has a special interest in helping aggressive and reactive dogs using fear-free strategies such as clicker training. She lives in Melbourne with her young sons, husband and Whippet. 

When not helping her own clients, Jari works at RSPCA Victoria training staff, volunteers and the public about animal behaviour handling and training. 

She will be running the Clicker Games Tournament at the PPGA 2024 Conference as well as presenting on RSPCA’s popular Reactive to Responsive seminars.

For more information, visit    

You can follow @jaricastledogtraining on Instagram or on Facebook:

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